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Marine and Petroleum Geology 28 (2011) 728e743

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Architecture of turbidite channel systems on the continental slope: Patterns and

T. McHargue a, *, M.J. Pyrcz b, M.D. Sullivan b, J.D. Clark a, A. Fildani a, B.W. Romans a, J.A. Covault a, M. Levy a,
H.W. Posamentier b, N.J. Drinkwater c
Chevron Energy Technology Company, 6001 Bollinger Canyon Road, San Ramon, CA, USA
Chevron Energy Technology Company, Houston, TX, USA
Chevron South African Business Unit, Houston, TX, USA

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: The study of many slope channel systems has led to the development of rules in the form of observations,
Received 16 January 2010 measurements, and hypotheses. For example, we hypothesize that high abandonment relief can strongly
Received in revised form influence the location of the subsequent channel element and will result in an organized channel
11 July 2010
stacking pattern in which the path of the younger channel element approximates the path of the former
Accepted 14 July 2010
Available online 29 July 2010
element. The rules were developed with the objective of constructing forward models of petroleum
reservoirs that are internally consistent, reproducible, and quantifiable. Channelized turbidite deposits
can be interpreted to be the product of multiple cycles of waxingewaning flow energy at multiple scales.
Systematic changes in the volume and caliber of turbidity flows through time trigger a fall of the
Turbidite architecture equilibrium profile, which drives erosion and sediment bypass across the slope, followed by a rise of the
Turbidite channel equilibrium profile, which allows deposition on the slope of increasingly mud-rich sediments through
Continental slope time. In most turbidite successions, at least three scales of waxingewaning cyclicity can be interpreted:
Cyclicity element, complex set, and sequence. The stacking pattern of channel elements within a complex set-
Modeling scale cycle tends to be sequential: (1) erosion and sediment bypass; (2) amalgamation of channel
Petroleum reservoir elements associated with a low rate of aggradation; (3) a disorganized stacking pattern of channel
elements associated with a moderate rate of aggradation; and (4) an organized stacking pattern of
Turbidity current
channel elements associated with a high rate of aggradation. Stages 1 and 2 may be absent or minor in
mud-rich systems but prominent in sand-rich systems. Conversely, stage 4 may be prominent in mud-
rich systems but absent in sand-rich systems. Event-based forward modeling, utilizing rules, can produce
realistic architectures, such as the four stages described above. Multiple realizations and multiple
alternative models can be constructed to quantitatively examine the probability of specific parameters of
interest such as pore volume and connectivity.
Ó 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction channel systems, because of the high cost of discovering and

extracting oil and gas from these complicated reservoirs in deep-
Turbidite channel systems are a common type of sandstone water, far offshore. Complexity yields significant degrees of
deposit on the continental slope and have proven to be one of the uncertainty as to the volume of hydrocarbons in place, the volume
most common types of hydrocarbon reservoirs found in deep ocean of hydrocarbons that are likely to be recovered during production,
settings (Weimer et al., 2000). Despite their abundance and many and the scale of facilities needed to most efficiently recover the
years of study, both in industry and academia, characterization and hydrocarbons. In such a challenging and expensive setting, it is
predictability have proven challenging due to the three-dimen- highly advantageous to be able to reduce uncertainty to a minimum
sional complexity and diversity of channel systems. The petroleum and to accurately define the range of the uncertainty that remains.
industry is interested in improved characterization of turbidite Magallanes Basin outcropping strata serve as the inspiration of
the Special Issue in which this manuscript is published. The basin
hosts three distinct formations, each of which displays a charac-
* Corresponding author. Present address: Stanford University, Department of
Geological and Environmental Sciences, Stanford, CA 94305-2115, USA. Tel.: þ1 925
teristic deep-water architecture in exceptionally well exposed
964 0740. outcrops (Fildani et al., 2009). The factors that may control the
E-mail address: (T. McHargue). observed changes in stratigraphic architecture were discussed

0264-8172/$ e see front matter Ó 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
T. McHargue et al. / Marine and Petroleum Geology 28 (2011) 728e743 729

during the 2009 SEPM Field Conference. Such exceptionally well et al., 1998). Reservoir scale predictions based on these general
exposed outcrop examples of ancient systems (e.g., Bernhardt models also tend to yield a high degree of uncertainty.
et al., 2011; Fildani et al., 2009; Flint et al., 2011; Hubbard et al., An emerging approach is to construct quantitative forward
2010; Kane and Hodgson, 2011; Khan and Arnott, 2011; Romans models that replicate the known characteristics (i.e., conditioning
et al., 2011) are sources of data that contribute significantly to data) of a reservoir and predict the range and probability of possible
our understanding of turbidite channel systems. Other important unknown characteristics that are compatible with the conditioning
sources include oceanographic data from “modern” systems, near data (Pyrcz, 2004; Pyrcz et al., in press; Sylvester et al., 2011).
surface 2D and 3D seismic surveys (both high resolution and Forward models can be constructed in several different ways, based
industry standard) (e.g., Posamentier and Kolla, 2003), and on the assumptions that the modelers are comfortable with making.
subsurface data from ancient systems (core, well logs, bore-hole To date, all forward modeling schemes require numerous assump-
images, pressure data, fluid production, etc.). What is lacking for tions. One of these approaches, event-based modeling (Pyrcz, 2004;
turbidite systems that usually are available for other depositional Pyrcz and Deutsch, 2005; Pyrcz et al., 2005; Pyrcz et al., 2006; Pyrcz
systems are direct observations of on-going processes of erosion and Strebelle, 2006; Pyrcz et al., in press; McHargue et al., in press),
and deposition. Consequently, processes are poorly understood is a rule-based approach and is addressed in this paper by discussing
and are based on the study of synthetic systems in flume tanks the geologic concepts behind some of the rules and illustrating
and numerical models of flow mechanics. This “process gap” in example products of these models.
our knowledge of turbidites is a major handicap. Until recently, the
most valuable sources of information regarding turbidite channel 2. Classification hierarchy
architectures have been outcrops, especially exceptionally well
exposed, aerially extensive outcrops. Unfortunately, there are few It is essential to organize and synthesize observations by hier-
of these exceptional outcrop exposures. They tend to be biased in archical scale into recurring patterns, trends, or statistical distri-
favor of very sand-rich deposits in epicratonic settings, and butions which we refer to as rules. Some rules may apply to
essentially are two-dimensional or, at best, consist of a set of two- multiple hierarchical scales, but more likely, they do not, so it is
dimensional exposures (Campion et al., 2000; Gardner and Borer, necessary to correlate rules with the hierarchical scale to which
2000; Sullivan et al., 2000; Fildani et al., 2009; Hubbard et al., they apply. Several hierarchical schemes for turbidite channel
2010; Pyles et al., 2010). More recently, high quality 3D seismic- systems have been proposed (e.g. Campion et al., 2000; Gardner
reflection surveys have yielded many vivid 3D images of turbidite and Borer, 2000; Navarre et al., 2002; Sprague et al., 2002, 2005).
channel systems from continental margin settings around the The scheme used here most closely resembles that of Sprague et al.
world (e.g., Weimer et al., 2000; Posamentier and Kolla, 2003). (2002, 2005). Although some of the terms used here are modified
Architecture is revealed at a coarse scale relative to outcrop from Sprague et al., the conceptual basis remains the same. This
exposures, and samples of lithologies within the revealed archi- hierarchical scheme is designed to be applicable to 1D and 2D data
tectures usually are lacking. Despite these limitations, 3D seismic- and can be problematic in three dimensions.
reflection surveys provide the only robust three-dimensional In channelized systems, the fundamental architectural unit is
constraints on architectural complexity and evolution through the channel element, which consists of a channel-form surface and
time and space. The lack of lithological control is mitigated the sediments that fill it (Fig. 1). Separate elements are distin-
somewhat by internally consistent displays of the variation in guished from each other by an abrupt lateral offset of depositional
reflection attributes, such as amplitudes, throughout the 3D space. facies. Temporal duration and physical scale do not contribute to
When available, well data provide lithological calibration for the definition. Individual channel elements may consist of multiple
attribute displays and help to constrain interpretations of lithol- smaller channel-forms, called stories, which essentially stack
ogies away from the well bores. Ultimately, all sources of infor- vertically with no significant lateral offset of depositional facies.
mation regarding turbidite channels have both strengths and Multiple similar and genetically related elements that stack in
weaknesses, so a robust understanding of these complicated a consistent pattern constitute a single complex. If multiple
systems is most likely to result from the integration of data from genetically related complexes are present, they form a single
all sources. complex set. The term system is a general term used to refer to all of
Conceptual models of turbidite channel architecture have been the genetically related erosional and depositional components that
developed to summarize the characteristics of specific outcrops or are present in a single area regardless of hierarchy. A system is most
subsurface examples (e.g., Stelting et al., 1985; Phillips, 1987; Mutti, often equivalent to one or more complex sets or, less commonly, to
1985; McHargue, 1991; Pirmez and Flood, 1995; Clark and a complex. In sequence stratigraphic terms, the lowstand system
Pickering, 1996; Gardner and Borer, 2000; Mayall and Stewart, tract of a 3rd order sequence often will consist of multiple complex
2000; Navarre et al., 2002). These models are intended to serve sets. A single complex set might represent the lowstand portion of
as a basis for making predictions about the characteristics of a single high frequency sequence.
a poorly known example, such as a subsurface reservoir. Tradi-
tionally conceptual models have been conveyed as 2D profiles or 3D 3. Element lithofacies patterns
block diagrams. These diagrams, and the studies on which they are
based, remain important analogs that guide predictions and The sediments that fill channel elements usually can be orga-
constrain uncertainty. However, each of them can suffer from being nized into a predictable pattern of facies associations; axis, off-axis,
too specific to a narrow set of conditions. If the conditions for and margin (Fig. 1). In a relative sense, these facies associations
a subsurface reservoir differ from the analog, then predictions differ from each other by the degree of amalgamation of beds and
based on that single analog are unlikely to be correct for the the relative abundance of sand. Of the three facies associations, the
reservoir and the uncertainty around that error is unknown. On the axis is located at the thickest part of the channel element, displays
other hand, general models that attempt to synthesize observations the greatest amount of amalgamation, has the thickest beds, and
from many examples have tended to be fairly vague with simplified has the highest concentration of sand. In contrast, the margin facies
architectures that lack sufficient detail at the reservoir scale association is located at the thinner parts of the channel element,
(Mitchum, 1984, 1985; Mutti, 1985; Posamentier and Vail, 1988; displays the least amalgamation, has the thinnest beds, and has the
Reading and Richards, 1994; Clark and Pickering, 1996; Prather lowest concentration of sand. The off-axis facies association has
730 T. McHargue et al. / Marine and Petroleum Geology 28 (2011) 728e743

Fig. 1. Schematic representations of common fill styles of under-filled and filled channel elements. Although the contrasting characteristics as illustrated here are common for these
two channel types, variation is considerable. A: Under-filled channel element with moderate to high rate of overbank aggradation, semi-amalgamated highly heterolithic fill,
common shale/silt drapes, and capped by upward fining abandonment-fill facies. B: Filled channel element with low rate of overbank aggradation, amalgamated and less het-
erolithic fill, and rare shale/silt drapes. Upward fining abandonment-fill facies is thin or absent. If the channel element is over-filled, sandy overbank deposits may be present.
Yellow ¼ sand-rich channel-fill sediments, Green ¼ mud-rich channel-fill sediments, Brown ¼ mud-clast-rich channel-fill sediments, Gray ¼ mud-rich pre-existing sediments.

characteristics that are intermediate between the other two facies resolution bathymetric images of modern channels on the ocean
associations. Because some channel elements are sandy high bottom, symmetrical channels have been noted at the straight
energy features and others are much muddier, the channel-fill segments of channel elements, whereas asymmetrical elements are
facies associations are not defined by specific values of sand found at sinuous channel bends with the thickest part of the
percentage or bed thickness, but by the relative trend of these element displaced toward the outer bend (Abreu et al., 2003;
values within a channel element. Posamentier and Kolla, 2003; Deptuck et al., 2007). Likewise, the
Vertical trends of sand percentage or bed thickness within axis facies association is located at the thick center of symmetrical
a single element also may be helpful for identifying which channel- channels and is displaced from the center toward the thicker, outer
fill facies association is present at a particular location (Fig. 1). The portion of asymmetrical channel elements (Pyles et al., 2010).
axis facies association, because of abundant amalgamation, tends to Accordingly, off-axis and margin facies associations may expand in
have a blocky-shaped sandy grain-size profile with minor width on the inner, thinner side of asymmetrical channel elements
mudstone interbeds. However, mudstone in the form of mass flow and be narrow or absent at the outer, thicker side of the channel
deposits or thick shale-clast lag deposits often is present or even element. The magnitude of asymmetry in channel elements is
abundant in the axis facies association and can cause considerable thought to be proportional to the magnitude of sinuosity (e.g.
complications in the appearance of the vertical profile. In the Gardner and Borer, 2000; Peakall et al., 2000; Abreu et al., 2003;
channel margin facies association, both sand abundance and bed Pyles et al., 2010), but robust documentation and quantification
thicknesses tend to increase upward and mudstone interbeds are of this relationship is lacking.
common. Mass flow deposits and shale-clast lag deposits may be
present in the margin facies association, but usually they are less 4. Channel dimensions
common in the margin than in the axis of the channel element. The
off-axis facies association has intermediate characteristics between Although channel elements are not defined based on their
the axis and the margin facies associations. dimensions, some patterns have been detected that might prove
A fourth channel-fill facies association, the abandonment facies instructive for interpreting the depositional setting of isolated
association, is present in many, but not all, channel elements (Fig. 1). outcrops or well penetrations of channel elements. When building
If present, it overlies all of the other channel-fill facies associations. models in the absence of sufficient local information, the data
In the channel abandonment facies association, both sand abun- compiled in Fig. 2 can be used as a guide to size distributions of
dance and bed thickness tend to decrease upward and mudstone channel elements.
interbeds are common (Labourdette, 2007). Above the underlying Element dimensions from any confined channelized system,
axis facies association, the abandonment facies association tends to whether levee-confined or erosionally confined, are included in
be relatively sandy and amalgamated compared to the abandonment Fig. 2. Likewise, data are included in Fig. 2 regardless of sand/mud
deposits that overlie the channel margin facies association (Fig. 1). ratio or paleo-seafloor gradient. Channel element dimensions
Cross-sections of single channel elements can be symmetrical or measured from outcrops and subsurface data have been compiled
asymmetrical. In high resolution 3D seismic volumes and in high from the literature, supplemented with proprietary data collected
T. McHargue et al. / Marine and Petroleum Geology 28 (2011) 728e743 731

Fig. 2. Histograms of measured channel element widths and thicknesses. SD ¼ standard deviation. N ¼ number of measured examples. A: Histogram of channel element widths
from outcrop examples. B: Histogram of channel element widths from high quality 3D reflection seismic coherency data. C: Histogram of channel element thicknesses from outcrop
examples. D: Histogram of channel element thicknesses from well logs (only penetrations through axis facies association).

by the authors. Only channel elements with the most complete thicknesses because of inadequate resolution. Fortunately, high
dimensions were included in Fig. 2. quality outcrops can be well suited for providing accurate element
thicknesses (Clark and Pickering, 1996) and provide our best source
4.1. Channel width for channel thickness data (Fig. 2C). Nevertheless, channel thickness
measurements from outcrops can have significant errors. For
Good quality 3D seismic data provide an excellent opportunity to example, sediments that fill the top of channel elements often are
measure the widths of many channel elements in multiple locations. muddy (Figueiredo et al., 2010; Flint et al., 2011) and may be poorly
These measurements demonstrate that the widths of channel exposed. This issue may lead to a significant underestimate of
elements typically fall between 100 and 300 m with an average of channel element thickness. Also, amalgamation of multiple sand-
206 m (Fig. 2). Measurements from outcrops suggest a wider range rich elements may make the base of some elements indistinct. As
of values for channel element width with an average of 307 m mentioned above, other uncertainties result from imperfect expo-
(Fig. 2). The different results for the two data sets are not understood, sure or incomplete published information as to what hierarchical
but it is likely related to the following potential weaknesses of the level is being measured. Wells also can be a useful source of data
data sources. Because vertical resolution is poor in most conven- regarding channel element thicknesses. However, like outcrop data
tional 3D seismic data sets relative to the thickness of channel sets, amalgamation is a common source of uncertainty. Many
elements, many elements fall within a single seismic wavelength. channel elements are thinned due to erosion by younger elements.
Therefore, seismic-based measurements of element width may Furthermore, many wells penetrate the channel element at a loca-
represent an average value between a maximum value at the top of tion that is less than its maximum thickness. Channel element
the channel element and a minimum value at the base. Channel thicknesses from well data are included in Fig. 2D only if the well
element width measurements from outcrops are also potentially penetrated an uneroded element through the axial facies associa-
biased toward an overestimate of element widths because outcrops tion. Outcrop examples yield a mean of 13 m whereas well data yield
rarely are perpendicular to the flow direction of the channel a mean of 10.7 m for channel element thickness (Fig. 2).
element. Therefore, element widths measured from outcrops We hypothesize that the thickness of a channel element is
generally are apparent widths that need to be corrected. Although related to depositional setting; either proximal vs. distal or, more
the correction is routinely attempted, the correction is always likely, high gradient vs. low gradient. Documentation to support the
subject to error. Other uncertainties result from mixing measure- relationship between channel element thickness and depositional
ments from multiple hierarchical levels. For example, the often cited gradient is weak, because the interpretation of depositional
compilation of channel dimensions in Clark and Pickering (1996) gradient is subjective for ancient examples.
contains no hierarchical information. For the compilation in Fig. 2,
data from the literature were hierarchically classified by the authors. 5. Gradient patterns

4.2. Channel thickness 5.1. Depth of erosion

As discussed, even good quality 3D seismic data rarely provide Gradient influences turbidite channel architecture by contrib-
the opportunity to collect robust measurements of channel element uting to the force of turbidity flows; force is proportional to the
732 T. McHargue et al. / Marine and Petroleum Geology 28 (2011) 728e743

steepness of the gradient. The first order effect of gradient on

architecture is its influence on the depth of erosion. For a given
channel element, all else being equal, erosional depth is greatest
where the gradient is steepest (Pirmez et al., 2000; Prather et al.,
2000; Ferry et al., 2005). If channel element thickness is
controlled solely by erosion, then element thickness would be
a good approximation of slope gradient. This is most likely to be
true for sand-rich systems which generally lack appreciable over-
bank development (Mutti, 1985; Mutti and Normark, 1987). But for
muddy systems, overbank aggradation also contributes signifi-
cantly to the thickness of channel elements and, on a local scale, the
thickness of overbank aggradation may not correlate well with
gradient (Pirmez and Imran, 2003).

5.2. Accommodation

An equilibrium profile in turbidite channels, as in fluvial systems,

is the theoretical elevation along the path of the channel at which
there is no net erosion or deposition (Pirmez et al., 2000; Kneller, Fig. 3. Example bathymetric profiles (colored lines) from the continental slope of the
2003). The height of the equilibrium profile above the sediment Niger Delta showing thalweg elevations of six channel systems near the seafloor that
are well imaged by 3D reflection seismic surveys. In all but one of the examples,
surface at any point along the equilibrium profile represents the straight lines (black) closely approximate the thalweg profiles. These examples
thickness of accommodation at that point in time (Posamentier and demonstrate that, although gradients differ for separate channel systems, most
Vail, 1988; Samuel et al., 2003). The gradient of the equilibrium channel systems are well approximated by assuming a constant equilibrium gradient
profile develops in response to changes in flow height, density, and for distances of several tens of kilometers down the slope. Therefore, it is reasonable to
assume that channel gradient was nearly constant for a channel element for distances
grain size. Larger, sandier flows trigger a decrease in the equilibrium
greater than expected for a single hydrocarbon accumulation. Examples where
gradient and, therefore, a decrease in accommodation whereas a constant channel gradient is an inappropriate approximation (i.e. the shallowest
smaller, muddier flows trigger an increase in the equilibrium example illustrated here) can be anticipated because isochron thicknesses will vary
gradient and an increase in accommodation (Kneller, 2003). Over along the flow path in these instances.
long periods of time, accommodation at any point along a channel
profile changes substantially, but change tends to follow a pattern in
most channel systems: erosion, to some degree, early in the history substantial changes in the gradient of the profile of one element
of the channel system followed by deposition and aggradation late relative to the other. Equilibrium disruption results either from
in the history of the system (Stelting et al., 1985; McHargue, 1991; dramatic differences in the evolution of flow characteristics or from
Peakall et al., 2000; Deptuck et al., 2003; Kneller, 2003; topographic irregularities along the flow path that are either too
Labourdette, 2007). Although the longitudinal profile of entire great or too dynamic to have been smoothed by erosion (e.g. the
channel systems often is concave (Pirmez et al., 2000; Pirmez and shallowest example in Fig. 3). Examples include ponded or fill-and-
Imran, 2003), the longitudinal profile of many turbidite channel spill systems (Winker, 1996; Prather et al., 1998; Beaubouef and
systems on the slope is nearly linear for several tens of kilometers Friedman, 2000; Pirmez et al., 2000; Mayall and Stewart, 2001)
(Fig. 3). Furthermore, despite substantial changes in accommoda- and transient fans (Adeogba et al., 2005). Although systems like
tion history, the gradient of the longitudinal profile of many turbi- these can be important hydrocarbon reservoirs, the simplifying
dite channel systems appears to remain fairly constant through assumptions described in the previous paragraph are inappropriate
time. This pattern is illustrated by a near modern turbidite channel for modeling them.
system offshore Nigeria, where the base of the erosional turbidite
channel system is nearly linear for 60 km, as interpreted from 6. Cyclicity patterns
excellent quality 3D seismic data (Fig. 4). Likewise, at the time the
system was abandoned, the top of channel-fill and the tops of levees 6.1. Waxingewaning cycle
also constructed a smooth, linear, longitudinal bathymetric profile,
approximately parallel to the original, erosional profile at the base of A cycle of channel erosion followed by deposition of channel-
the system (Fig. 4). Apparently, the gradient of the equilibrium filling sediments has long been recognized (Mutti and Normark,
profile changed little with time and a single accommodation history 1987, 1991). Building on this recognition, we find it useful to
can reasonably be applied to this entire channel segment. This is an interpret channelized turbidite deposits to be the product of
important simplifying assumption for constructing a forward model multiple cycles of waxing flow energy followed by waning flow
of this type of turbidite channel system. energy at multiple scales. Each cycle is interpreted to result from
Although it has not been demonstrated, we assume for modeling systematic, and presumably gradual, changes in the volume and
purposes that the apparently constant gradient of the equilibrium caliber of turbidity flows through time triggering first a fall and
profile for several tens of kilometers applies to element-scale then a rise of the equilibrium profile (Kneller, 2003). In the waxing
architecture as well as to complex and complex set-scale architec- portion of an energy cycle, flows are relatively large and dense, and
ture. So, for channel segments that are a few tens of kilometers long, sediment caliber usually is coarse (sand-rich) relative to flows of
it is assumed that a single accommodation cycle reasonably predicts the waning phase. Therefore, the waxing phase of the cycle drives
erosion and then fill of a channel element at all points along the erosion of a channel conduit as the equilibrium profile falls. Even-
entire length of the channel segment. Multiple elements result from tually, successive flows gradually decrease in force; the equilibrium
multiple accommodation cycles of similar scale. profile stabilizes and then begins to rise. The rise of the equilibrium
On the other hand, if adjacent channel elements with very profile marks the beginning of the waning phase of the energy
different depths of erosion are present in the same system, then cycle. As the equilibrium profile rises in the waning phase, flows
equilibrium disruption (Pirmez et al., 2000) is indicated with progressively become smaller, and usually muddier in caliber, with
T. McHargue et al. / Marine and Petroleum Geology 28 (2011) 728e743 733

Fig. 4. Example dip profile along a near-seafloor channel-levee system from the continental slope of the Niger Delta that is well imaged by 3D seismic data for over 60 km down
slope. The original bathymetry prior to channel initiation, indicated by the dark blue horizon, is determined by identifying the depth of the youngest horizon truncated by the
channel system and downlapped by outer levees. The original surface is irregular, including a structurally elevated area near the distal end of the profile. The erosional base of the
system is indicated by the red horizon. The top of active channel-fill (the top of high amplitude reflections in the system) is indicated by the yellow horizon; and the top of the right
hand levee is indicated by the light blue horizon. Note that a nearly smooth profile is established immediately through erosion, despite significant irregularities on the initial
seafloor profile. Elevated profiles after deposition within the channel system and on the levees are nearly parallel to the profile at the erosional base of the system.

decreasing density which allows deposition both within the sequence. The element scale of cyclicity is responsible for the erosion
channel conduit and in overbank settings of increasingly muddy and filling of a single channel element. Likewise, the complex set
sediments (Kneller, 2003; Labourdette, 2007; Wynn et al., 2007). scale of cyclicity results in the accumulation of a complex set and the
Typically, an abrupt lateral shift of the channel position (avulsion) sequence scale of cyclicity results in the accumulation of a sequence.
separates one cycle from the next (Sprague et al., 2002, 2005). We consider these three scales one at a time.
Because most of the deposition takes place during the waning A sequence-scale cycle is the most familiar scale of wax-
portion of the cycle compared to erosion during much of the ingewaning cyclicity and the best documented (Posamentier and
waxing phase, each cycle will likely appear highly asymmetrical in Vail, 1988; Posamentier et al., 1991; Mitchum et al., 1993). A
the preserved stratigraphic record. The actual relative durations sequence-scale cycle on the slope is expressed most completely by (1)
and amplitudes of the two phases are unknown. a sequence boundary followed by (2) one or more complex set-scale
cycles of potentially sand-rich sediments followed by (3) thin bedded
6.2. Allogenic drivers siltstones of the lowstand wedge and then by (4) muddy deposits of
the condensed section. Because the sequence scale of cyclicity has
The driving mechanisms of flow energy cyclicity are unknown. been described many times in detail, it will not be discussed here
In this paper, allogenic cyclicity is treated as the primary driving except to emphasize that the sequence in essence consists of a waxing
mechanism controlling waxingewaning cycles at all scales. In fact, phase, represented on the slope mostly by a stratigraphic surface, the
allocyclicity may not control any of the cycles, but it is a convenient sequence boundary, followed by increasingly muddy sediments
and simplifying assumption for modeling purposes that provides deposited during a trend of waning energy.
testable predictions. Several allogenic drivers, such as relative sea A complex set-scale cycle is expressed by a series of channel
level, tectonism, and climate, likely influence turbidite architecture elements that may be confined entirely or in part by an erosional
but the impact of one relative to another is unknown in most cases. valley, by levees, or by a combination of both. The stacking pattern of
Although autogenic processes presumably drive some of the channel elements deposited during a complex set-scale cycle results
changes that are manifest in turbidite channel deposits, they are in a succession of channel complexes that tend to follow a predictable
poorly understood and difficult to use as a basis for making quan- pattern (Mutti, 1985; Mutti and Normark, 1987; McHargue, 1991;
tifiable predictions. If one wants to consider the effects of any Mayall and Stewart, 2000; Peakall et al., 2000; Posamentier et al.,
particular autogenic process, it can be modeled within the cyclical 2000; Navarre et al., 2002; Sprague et al., 2002; Wynn et al., 2007).
allogenic framework either stochastically, or as a set of rules. It is The erosional valley surface, if present, represents the waxing part of
useful to emphasize the cyclicity that is interpreted to result from the complex set cycle in a high gradient setting. The early elements of
allogenic mechanisms because these cycles are systematic, are the waning portion of the cycle strongly amalgamate because
easily modeled and will constrain predictions of the characteristics aggradation between elements is small in magnitude and the
of turbidite deposits and their stacking pattern. Assumed allogenic amount of lateral offset between elements is limited by the high relief
cyclicity provides the basis for developing statistically definable confinement of erosional valley walls or levees. These amalgamated
trends that serve to constrain predictions, but presumably auto- channel elements constitute an amalgamated channel complex. As
genetic processes are responsible, at least in part, for the statistical flow energy continues to wane, the equilibrium profile begins to rise
spread that impacts the uncertainty of the predictions. so that the rate of aggradation between elements increases and
amalgamation decreases with time. Aggradation from one channel
6.3. Cycle hierarchy element to the next requires accumulation of overbank sediments
(Mutti and Normark, 1991; Clark and Pickering, 1996; Kneller, 2003).
In most turbidite successions, at least three scales of wax- Overbank sediments usually are mud-rich and an increasing rate of
ingewaning cyclicity can be interpreted: element, complex set, and aggradation implies that the mud fraction increases relative to sand
734 T. McHargue et al. / Marine and Petroleum Geology 28 (2011) 728e743

as energy continues to wane (Kneller, 2003; Labourdette, 2007). The 6.5. Avulsion
aggrading succession of channel elements constitutes a separate
channel complex because the stacking pattern of these aggradational Avulsion is a critical process in the development of turbidite
elements differs strongly from the highly amalgamated stacking channel architecture (Kolla, 2007). Unfortunately, this complicated
pattern that underlies them. Typically, the rate of aggradation process is poorly understood. Here, we treat avulsion as being tied
continues to increase (McHargue, 1991; Peakall et al., 2000; to the initiation of the waxing phase of an energy cycle. During the
Posamentier et al., 2000) until the next complex set-scale cycle waning phase of the previous cycle, channel architecture, and
begins, usually marked by abandonment of the active complex due especially the relief of channel confinement, is in equilibrium with
either to avulsion or the end of turbidite sedimentation. relatively mud-rich, small and low energy flows. The initiation of
An element-scale waxingewaning cycle is expressed by the cut the next energy cycle brings with it flows that are much sandier,
and fill of a single channel element. On the slope, a channel element more dense, and much more erosive. Therefore, the potential for
begins with waxing flow energy that causes increased erosion of avulsion is greater at this time than at any other time in the energy
the substrate associated with a lateral shift of the channel position, cycle. Alternatively, some avulsions may be independent of an
that is, avulsion. Sediments within turbidity flows pass through the energy cycle resulting from (1) exceptional, large, energetic,
channel conduit to be deposited far down slope, leaving very little turbidity flows, (2) mass flow deposits, or (3) mass failure of a levee.
sediment behind within the channel except possibly for pebbly bed The occurrence of these non-cyclical avulsions, in either time or
load lags at the channel base or muddy remnants of the dilute tails space, cannot be predicted as yet and are modeled stochastically.
of the flows (Gardner and Borer, 2000) that may line the channel
margin (Fig. 1). Although these deposits, called bypass deposits, 7. Confinement hierarchy
often are very muddy, they represent some of the highest energy
flows of the channel element (Mutti and Normark, 1987; Hubbard The channel elements of some turbidite channel systems are
et al., 2010). Continued waxing energy causes continued erosion confined by a single set of levees. However, the morphology of
and extensive sediment bypass until flow energy begins to wane. many turbidite channel systems, especially when located on the
Therefore, at a single outcrop or in a subsurface core, the waxing continental slope, indicates that confinement of turbidity flows can
portion of the channel element energy cycle may be represented occur at two scales which we will refer to as inner confinement and
solely by an erosional surface, possibly coated by bypass deposits. It outer confinement (Fig. 5). Inner confinement, results from the
is not until flow energy begins to wane that a channel element combination of erosion and/or overbank aggradation at the margin
starts to fill with sandy sediments (Gardner and Borer, 2000). Early of a channel element, sometimes referred to as an inner levee or as
deposits of the channel-fill often are highly amalgamated near the an internal levee (Hubscher et al., 1997; Deptuck et al., 2003; Kane
axis of the channel and interbedded with draping, muddy, bypass and Hodgson, 2011). Outer confinement results from the combi-
deposits at the channel margin (Fig. 1) (Campion et al., 2000). At nation of erosion and/or overbank aggradation at the scale of
any single location, continued waning flow energy results in a complex set. Outer confinement may take the form of an erosional
decreasing magnitude and extent of amalgamation upward within valley wall, an outer levee, or a combination of the two. Increased
the channel as a smaller proportion of each flow bypasses that overbank aggradation has an important impact on the stacking
location and more of the flow is deposited. Therefore, as flow pattern of channel elements, potentially by increasing the amount
energy wanes, the rate of sediment aggradation increases and the of both inner confinement and outer confinement.
focus of deposition shifts progressively toward the proximal part of In the early part of the waning phase of a complex set-scale
the channel profile, a process referred to as backfilling (Gardner and energy cycle the flows are large and probably sand-rich relative to
Borer, 2000). This means that at any one location, sandy beds will flows later in the cycle (Kneller, 2003; Labourdette, 2007). The
tend to thicken upward through the sediment fill of a channel aggradation rate of both the inner and outer confinements can be
element as the focus of sedimentation approaches that location low, limited by insufficient mud (Fig. 5). In this case, we speculate
along the channel profile (Campion et al., 2000). However, because that channel element relief is low and confined sediment tends to
of extensive amalgamation at the channel axis the apparent, nearly fill each channel element. Because little relief remains
amalgamated bed thickness may be greater in the lower part of the unfilled when the next element-scale cycle begins, the abandoned
axial channel-fill. Therefore, the upward increase of bed thickness channel element has little influence on the path taken by the
often is best expressed at the channel margins (Fig. 1) (Campion subsequent channel element. The result is a disorganized stacking
et al., 2000). The upward increasing trend in aggradation rate and pattern (McHargue et al., in press) (Fig. 6). We expect that disor-
bed thickness is accompanied by decreasing scour relief, decreasing ganized stacking is favored by sand-rich flows that yield low rates of
amalgamation, and increasing preservation of interbedded muddy overbank aggradation and high rates of filling, especially when the
deposits as well as the tops of sandstone beds. The next element complex set-scale cycle is in the early portion of the waning phase.
cycle begins with abandonment of the old element due either to Mud-rich flows provide the mud volume that drives high rates of
avulsion or the end of turbidite sedimentation. aggradation of inner confinement. Importantly, if outer confinement
is present, either as an outer levee or as an erosional valley wall, and
6.4. Mass transport deposits has sufficient relief, it is reasonable to expect that the overbank
sediments of the channel element will be deflected and contained by
Mass transport deposits are an important component of many the outer confinement, thus further enhancing the rate of aggrada-
slope channel systems at multiple scales (Mayall and Stewart, tion on the inner confinement. Aggradation of the inner confinement
2000; Posamentier and Kolla, 2003; Mayall et al., 2006; Armitage increases channel element relief and thereby increases the proba-
et al., 2009). Although there is some evidence that slump and bility that the channel element will not completely fill prior to initi-
debris flow deposits are most common near the base of a channel ation of the next element-scale energy cycle. The unfilled channel
system (Mayall and Stewart, 2000; Posamentier and Kolla, 2003; relief (Fig. 5) has the potential to influence, or even capture, the
Mayall et al., 2006), we have excluded mass transport deposits energetic flows of the next waxing phase. If this occurs, the result is an
from the discussion above because their presence and abundance is organized stacking pattern (McHargue et al., in press), where the
not reliably tied to cyclicity. We have chosen to consider mass position and morphology of the subsequent channel element are
transport deposits stochastically. strongly influenced by the position and morphology of the previous
T. McHargue et al. / Marine and Petroleum Geology 28 (2011) 728e743 735

removes fine-grained sediment from channelized turbidity

currents. Flow stripping usually results in deposition of the fine-
grained component in overbank positions which contributes to
levee construction. Except for local variation, levee height tends to
gradually decrease down flow (Skene et al., 2002; Pirmez and
Imran, 2003; Posamentier and Kolla, 2003). Therefore, the chan-
nelized portion of the flow progressively loses its top to flow
stripping and mud to the overbank while its relative sand
concentration increases, a process we refer to as flow filtering.
Flows can be thinner than the surrounding confinement, but they
cannot remain thicker than confinement without the tops of the
flows being stripped away. We refer to this effect as flow scaling;
the height of the flow is scaled to the height of confinement.
Flow filtering tends to cause individual channelized flows to
become thinner and sandier as they progress along their flow path.
Flow scaling tends to constrain the upper limit of flow height of
repeated channelized flows. Presumably, the effective longitudinal
profile of the channel is in equilibrium with the time-averaged size
and caliber of these scaled and filtered flows. Flow filtering is
important for another reason as well. Flow filtering ensures that, as
long as the upper part of a flow is clay-rich, overbank sediments are
clay-rich. Clay-rich sediments are cohesive and characterized by
moderate to high shear strength, making them relatively difficult to
erode (Audet, 1998). Cohesive banks are necessary for bank stability
and confinement, and without bank strength, channels with high
sinuosity are not stable with time (Audet, 1998). As flows progress
down slope, if gradient and levee height become progressively
lower, the muddy upper portion of the stratified flows eventually
will be completely stripped away and the lower, sand-rich portion
of the flows will begin to spill onto the overbank. Near this point,
Fig. 5. A: Definition of channel element relief (R). Inner confinement is represented by the channel banks will be too sandy to be cohesive and the
an inner levee and outer confinement can be either an outer levee or an erosional confinement height will be too low to be effective. We hypothesize
valley wall. B: Definition of unfilled element relief (C). that channels with non-cohesive, sandy banks tend to have low
sinuosity and are unstable, avulsing frequently. The product is
element (Fig. 6). The second channel usually is offset by less than a weekly confined channel system, with laterally offset channels
a channel width relative to the first channel (e.g. Posamentier et al., and sandy overbank with a low aggradation rate. Channel elements
2000; Posamentier and Kolla, 2003). We predict that mud-rich in this setting will be filled with sand-rich sediment and little if any
flows favor the development of organized stacking, because mud recognizable abandonment deposits. Because of the low gradient
contributes most to the rate of overbank aggradation. Therefore, the and the low aggradation rate, each channel element will be thin.
probability of developing organized stacking increases as the
complex set-scale waning phase progresses. The unfilled relief that is 9. Event-based approach to forward modeling
present when a channel element is abandoned presumably is filled by
overbank sediments from the next younger channel (Piper et al., The observations, patterns, and hypotheses discussed thus far in
1999). We expect the sediments that fill the abandoned channel this paper, some well constrained and some conjectural, can be
relief to display an upward fining grain-size profile (Figs. 1 and 7). The expressed as mathematical statements which we refer to as rules.
decompacted thickness of the upward fining interval represents Rules are either empirical or predictive. Empirical rules are quan-
a minimum estimate of the unfilled relief of a channel at the time of its titative summaries of statistically defined patterns, relationships, or
abandonment. observed dimensions. Predictive rules generally are hypotheses
regarding processes that are incompletely known. Rules are not
8. Autogenic drivers and patterns of architectural change independent. Interaction and feedback can produce complicated
down flow architectures from simple rules, as well as surprises which may
require the improvement of existing rules, the development of new
8.1. Flow stripping, filtering, and scaling rules, or lead to new insights.
Single rules are of limited value by themselves for making
Patterns of architectural change along a channel system are quantitative predictions or quantitative characterizations of sparsely
strongly influenced by autogenic drivers, especially flow stripping. sampled channel systems. It is only when these rules are applied
When the top of a turbidity flow becomes elevated above channel systematically in a forward modeling technique that their predictive
confinement, then that unconfined portion of the flow spreads out, value is optimized. We use an event-based (EB) forward modeling
slows down and becomes detached from the underlying, confined technique that facilitates the integration of geological information by
portion of the flow. This process is called flow stripping (Piper and constructing stochastic models as a sequence of depositional events
Normark, 1983; Peakall et al., 2000; Posamentier et al., 2000). It is (Pyrcz, 2004; Pyrcz et al., 2005; Pyrcz and Strebelle, 2006; Pyrcz et al.,
the uppermost, mud-rich fraction of the flow that is preferentially 2006; Pyrcz et al., in press). EB modeling is innovative in that it is (1)
removed by flow stripping, because turbidity flows are strongly a forward model; (2) pseudo-process-based; (3) parameterized by
density stratified, concentrated at the base and dilute at the top. flow axis centerlines and associated architectures; and (4) hierar-
Therefore, flow stripping is an effective filter that preferentially chical. The EB forward modeling laboratory has the capability of
736 T. McHargue et al. / Marine and Petroleum Geology 28 (2011) 728e743

Fig. 6. Schematic examples in plan view of channel complexes illustrating contrasting stacking patterns of four channel elements. The location of outer confinement on either side
of the channel complex is illustrated by a dashed line. A: Disorganized stacking pattern. The architecture and location of each element bears little resemblance to other elements. B:
Organized stacking pattern with lateral offset of elements in a down-flow direction (arrow). The architecture and location of each element strongly resembles the previous element.

quickly constructing many realizations of channel systems that are element scale. Rule-based models are able to: (1) use both empir-
consistent with the sparse constraints available from outcrop, ical and predictive information summarized from partial analogs;
seismic, or well control. From this suite of forward models, the range (2) reproduce realistic architectures at element to complex set
and probability of channel characteristics and their stacking patterns scales; and (3) generate a large number of model realizations
can be predicted quantitatively. After the experimental run, each rapidly (one realization of a model with several million cells in tens
realization of each model can be exhaustively analyzed to describe of seconds on a regular PC).
the genesis of each cell in the realization as well as property distri-
butions and internal heterogeneities across each realization (Pyrcz 9.1. Boundary conditions for EB slope channel models
et al., 2005). The statistics from every realization of every accept-
able model can be combined to address probability and uncertainty In the present form of EB forward modeling for slope channel
of properties and their spatial distribution. models, the starting surface can be planar, channel-form, or irreg-
We acknowledge that rule-based approaches to process ular. The starting surface must be tilted basin-ward at a constant
modeling are less rigorous than physics-based approaches. slope. The starting surface can be hypothetical or imported from
However, physics-based processes are not adequately understood, constraining data such as a 3D seismic interpretation. Model
the numerical methods are computationally intensive and resulting dimensions usually are several tens of kilometers long, a few kilo-
models often fail to reproduce high resolution architecture at meters wide, and a few hundred meters thick. Individual turbidity
currents are not modeled. Instead, each event consists of the net
product of a single architectural element, erosion plus fill, con-
structed in response to the interaction of a set of rules. Element
erosion and aggradation are controlled by rules that interact with
energy cycles and substrate topography. The channel element is
filled deterministically with axis, off-axis, and margin facies asso-
ciations in proportions that are either constant or sampled from
a distribution. The characteristics of each facies association are
derived from local data or from a database of regional examples.
Asymmetry of channel-fill is proportional to local curvature of the
channel element. Subsequent channel elements may erode
previous elements so that preserved channels and the preserved
facies proportions of channel-fills can be substantially different
from the original. For more detailed descriptions of the EB
modeling method, the reader is referred to Refs. Pyrcz (2004), Pyrcz
et al. (2005), Pyrcz and Strebelle (2006), Pyrcz et al. (2006), and
Pyrcz et al. (in press).
Fig. 7. Channel abandonment-fill overlying active channel-fill can be interpreted and
the thickness can be estimated from well logs. Abandonment-fill is indicated by an
upward increase in gamma ray values due to an upward increase in clay content and 10. Slope channel predictive model
an upward decrease in sand bed thickness. In this synthetic example, the upper
channel element, which is 21 m thick, consists of 9 m of active channel-fill overlain by
12 m of abandonment-fill. Although preserved in this example, underlying elements Thus far, we have described the patterns, trends, and opinions
often are partially eroded so that abandonment-fill is partially or entirely removed. that constitute many of the rules upon which the following models
T. McHargue et al. / Marine and Petroleum Geology 28 (2011) 728e743 737

are based. These models are crude, but they are a beginning, no systems. This scale is sufficient to model the reservoirs of petro-
better or worse than the rules. As experience and new data allow leum accumulations while eliminating the need for many rules to
improvements in the rules, future models should improve as well. account for down-flow changes in flow parameters due either to
For example, initially, we were unable to generate an organized changes in gradient or to evolving flow caliber (Fig. 3).
stacking pattern of channel elements in our EB models. Conse-
quently, we hypothesized that unfilled relief of one channel element 10.1.1. Stage 1, complex set-scale erosion (Fig. 8A)
had the potential to confine the subsequent channel element and Erosion initiates the development of a slope channel system on
contribute to organized stacking (McHargue et al., in press). After a moderate to high gradient. We assume that the slope channel
incorporating this hypothesis as a rule, organized stacking formed system is eroded by many channel elements during the waxing
in a logical manor, especially when rates of overbank aggradation phase of a complex set-scale cycle. These events are confined by
were high. Furthermore, without the need of additional rules, down inner confinement and the developing outer confinement as the
slope translation (sweep) of younger elements developed in equilibrium profile drops. During the waxing phase, the time-
complexes with organized stacking. This example of rule develop- averaged flow caliber contains the highest proportion of sand and
ment emphasizes that an EB model is a hypothesis and illustrates an has the greatest erosive power. In response to these energetic
example emergent behavior that matches observations of natural conditions, the equilibrium profile falls through time, driving
systems. The EB model benefits from being conditioned by specific erosion. Except for clast-rich lags and fine-grained laminated
data sets in order to provide specific robust predictions for mudstone from the tail of turbidity currents, sediment transported
comparison to real world examples. When coded in a forward by these erosive flows bypasses the erosional valley to be deposited
modeling package such as EB, the predictions are quantitative, 3D, at some distal location where the gradient is low. A possible
reproducible and therefore testable. exception is the potential to preserve channel remnants of
We hypothesize that on the continental slope, the evolution of erosional terraces on the flank of the valley (Fig. 9).
flow caliber toward an increasing proportion of mud during the
waning phase of cycles at all scales tends to construct a channel 10.1.2. Stage 2, amalgamation (Fig. 8B)
complex set with a predictable succession of architectures. Aspects As the waxing phase gradually transitions to the early waning
of this architectural succession have been noted previously (e.g. phase of the complex set-scale cycle, the equilibrium profile
Stelting et al., 1985: Mutti, 1985; Phillips, 1987; McHargue, 1991; stabilizes and the slope channel system no longer deepens.
Pirmez and Flood, 1995; Clark and Pickering, 1996; Gardner and Deposits of the coarsest components of the flows are preserved as
Borer, 2000; Mayall and Stewart, 2000; Navarre et al., 2002; bed load lags on the valley floor. The entire valley is draped with
Posamentier and Kolla, 2003; Cross et al., 2009). In different mud-rich deposits that represent the tails of bypassing flows, but
settings along a profile, or in systems with different flow calibers, these deposits might be preserved only on the flanks of the valley
the prominence of any stage can vary or even be absent although because subsequent flows are still energetic enough to re-erode
the stages are likely to occur in the following order: (1) erosion of them near the axis. In this early stage of sedimentation, the accu-
a complex set-scale container; (2) accumulation of sand-rich, mulation of mass transport deposits is common and occasionally
laterally offset, amalgamated channel elements with low rates of voluminous. Although important components of the fill, mass
overbank aggradation; (3) development of channel elements with transport deposits have not been included in the illustrated model
disorganized stacking and modest amalgamation as overbank (Fig. 8). As the waning phase progresses, the time-averaged flow
aggradation begins to increase; and (4) establishment of under- caliber becomes slightly muddier and the equilibrium profile
filled channel elements with organized stacking as overbank begins to slowly rise. Sediment bypass becomes less effective and
sediments accumulate at a high rate (Fig. 8). As stated earlier, the increasingly, sand-rich deposits accumulate within the erosional
relative prominence of each stage can vary considerably depending confinement of each channel element. Some fine-grained sedi-
on local conditions, position along the slope profile, and the caliber ments accumulate as overbank deposits within the valley but they
of supplied sediment. Also, exceptions to this model are to be are not often preserved, because, due to low rates of aggradation,
expected. The succession of stages can be interrupted by the initi- subsequent avulsion and re-incision by younger elements rework
ation of a new complex set-scale cycle or truncated by erosion. these deposits and carry them farther down system. The resulting
These architectural stages and their implications in different architecture is highly amalgamated, containing laterally offset
settings and with different flow calibers are discussed here. channel elements. Overbank aggradation is very low and channel
elements are filled with sand-rich sediments so inner confinement
10.1. Mixed sand-mud system is ineffective and prominent avulsions result in disorganized
The rules have been developed primarily to model turbidite
channel systems on the continental slope in which the time-aver- 10.1.3. Stage 3, disorganized stacking (Fig. 8C)
aged flow caliber is rich in both sand and mud (mixed sand-mud As the waning energy phase progresses, the time-averaged
systems) because these are important petroleum reservoirs. Some caliber of repeated flows becomes increasingly muddy, the equi-
examples of channel systems that display all four stages are: Angola librium profile rises and both the channel elements and their
subsurface (Labourdette and Bez, 2010), the Joshua system of the overbank deposits aggrade at an increasing rate. Increased aggra-
Gulf of Mexico (Posamentier, 2003), De Soto area system dation requires deposition of increasing volumes of mud-rich
(Posamentier and Kolla, 2003), Niger western slope (Deptuck et al., sediments in overbank positions (inner confinements in Fig. 8)
2007), and western Amazon (Nakajima et al., 2009). The specific EB within the valley because successive channel elements cannot
models illustrated in Fig. 8 are of mixed sand-mud turbidite aggrade without aggradation of the overbank. Likewise, as the
channel systems on a moderately steep slope gradient (perhaps overbank aggradation component of confinement increases rela-
>1 ). For comparison, the hypothesized architectures on a low tive to the erosional component, channel amalgamation decreases
gradient will also be discussed. In addition, the hypothesized and the volume of channel deposits decreases relative to the
variations in architectures of sand-dominated and mud-dominated volume of overbank sediments. The potential for development and
systems will be compared to the illustrated models. The illustrated growth of outer improves at this time, but may be prevented if
EB models are for limited lengths, tens of kilometers, of channel valley relief is too great to allow turbidites to overflow the valley
738 T. McHargue et al. / Marine and Petroleum Geology 28 (2011) 728e743

Fig. 8. Example event-based forward model showing 4 architectural stages. Each display shows the surface of a representative event (channel element plus overbank deposits) as
preserved after erosion by younger events. The total accumulated sediments at the locations of three cross-sections are illustrated for reference. Depth of erosion of valley floor or
walls ¼ red (shallowest), yellow, green, and blue (deepest). Within valley-fill deposits as seen in plan view, yellow ¼ overbank deposits of the selected event. The channel elements
that erode the selected event are shown as blue (deep erosion) or green (shallow erosion). In the three cross-sections, all accumulated sediments at each of the three locations are
illustrated. In the cross-sections, the facies associations of channel-fill are represented by orange (axis), yellow (off-axis), green (margin), and gray (abandonment). Overbank
deposits are represented as gray. The model is 2 km  10 km  200 m. Vertical exaggeration ¼ 5. A: Stage 1 erosion. This figure shows the valley at maximum erosion without
sediment fill. B: Stage 2 channel amalgamation with low rate of aggradation. C: Stage 3 Disorganized channel stacking pattern with moderate rate of aggradation. D: Stage 4
Organized channel stacking pattern with high rate of aggradation.

walls. If all of the overbank muds are confined by the valley walls, element-scale energy cycle. Organized stacking of channel
then the aggradation rate of inner confinement can be high and elements results where each younger channel element is forced to
channel elements will not fill with sediments before the next follow near the path of the previous channel element (Figs. 6 and
element-scale energy cycle begins. Nevertheless, the under-filled 9). Flow momentum focuses erosion of channel walls in a down-
relief of channel elements is insufficient to confine the flows of the slope direction resulting in offset of successive elements (Fig. 10A).
next element-scale waxing phase which is marked by avulsion. The increasing rate of overbank aggradation is associated with
As a result, channel elements stack in a disorganized pattern. decreasing erosion during each element-scale waxing phase.
Nevertheless, channel amalgamation increases, because the change
10.1.4. Stage 4, organized stacking (Fig. 8D) from disorganized to organized stacking superimposes channel
As the waning energy phase continues to progress, the time- elements. In very muddy systems, extremely organized superim-
averaged caliber of repeated flows becomes even muddier, the poses successive channel elements (Pirmez et al., 2000;
equilibrium profile continues to rise and channel elements aggrade Posamentier et al., 2000; Popescu et al., 2001; Posamentier, 2003;
at an increasing rate along with their overbank deposits. Posamentier and Kolla, 2003; Schwenk et al., 2005; Deptuck
The unfilled relief of under-filled channel elements increases et al., 2007). Perhaps very muddy systems with turbidity currents
because of the increasing contribution of overbank (inner of long duration are one situation that favors the development of
confinement) aggradation to channel relief. The unfilled relief is lateral accretion with expanding meander loop radii, and high
now sufficient to confine the energetic waxing flows of the next sinuosities similar to fluvial systems.
T. McHargue et al. / Marine and Petroleum Geology 28 (2011) 728e743 739

Fig. 9. Multiple cross-sections through EB model in Fig. 8. Each cross-section shows the channel elements and overbank deposits and their stacking pattern within the erosional
valley container. The relative ages of channel elements are shown by color: blue (oldest) to green, yellow, orange, and red (youngest). Overbank deposits are transparent. Because of
channel sinuosity, organized stacking is expressed locally in a variety of ways: vertical stacking, sections 1 and 7; persistent lateral offset, sections 3 (right) and 4 (left); a reversal of
offset direction, section 6; and local, brief disruption of organized stacking, sections 2 and 5. Possible channel remnants on erosional terraces can be seen along the valley walls on
sections 2 and 5 or at the top of the valley in sections 3e6. Vertical exaggeration ¼ 5.

Eventually, a new complex set-scale energy cycle begins with far channel elements, further contributing to a sand-rich overbank.
more energetic sandy flows during the waxing phase. Complex set- The resulting architecture will be a weakly confined (stage 2)
scale avulsion is most likely at this time but if outer confinement is channel system in which frequent avulsion and channel instability
sufficiently high, either as unfilled erosional valley confinement or are common. Examples include portions of the Ross formation
as high relief outer levees, the next complex set may be captured by (Sullivan et al., 2000; Elliott, 2000), the Ongeluks River section of
the unfilled relief of the older complex set. This is most likely in the Tanqua Karoo (Sullivan et al., 2000), the distal portion of the
proximal settings with deeply eroded slope channel systems on Makassar Strait system (Posamentier et al., 2000; Posamentier and
steep slopes. Kolla, 2003), and near surface features of the Niger slope (Adeogba
et al., 2005).
10.2. Architectures on a low gradient
10.3. Mud-dominated systems
The same flows that produce the modeled architecture dis-
cussed above will produce very different architectures in distal We hypothesize that on a high gradient beyond the canyon
areas of low gradient (perhaps 0.5 or less for mixed sand-rich and mouth, systems with a time-averaged flow caliber that is mud-
mud-rich systems). We hypothesize that stage 1 erosion will be dominated may exhibit only small to moderate erosion during
minor or even absent. In stage 2, any erosional relief that is present stage 1, if any (e.g., aggradational zone of the Indus Fan (McHargue
will be occupied by amalgamated channel elements filled by sand- and Webb, 1986)). In stage 2, inner confinements may be small and
rich sediments (Fig. 1B). In stage 3 at this setting, the caliber of outer levees ineffective if flows are sufficiently sandy, allowing
overbank sediment is critical in determining architecture. For amalgamation of channel elements across a broad area. However,
example, the Makassar Strait system contains enough mud to build because of the great volumes of mud in the flows, moderate to high
prominent levees at the base of slope (Posamentier et al., 2000; rates of muddy overbank aggradation quickly result in the devel-
Posamentier and Kolla, 2003). The levees provide sufficient opment of effective inner and outer levee confinement with high
confinement with rapid aggradation to allow a channel stacking rates of aggradation. The disorganized stacking of stage 3 may be
pattern that evolves through stages 1e4. However, rapid depletion very short lived or even absent, giving way rapidly to stage 4
of mud down flow, as a consequence of flow stripping, causes organized stacking and highly under-filled channel elements.
mixed sand-mud flows to evolve rapidly into sand-rich flows. In the Because of the high rate of inner confinement aggradation, a special
distal Makassar system, as in other sand-rich systems in a low case of organized stacking, lateral accretion, may develop along
gradient setting, the mud that remains in the upper portion of the with prominent swing of meander loops and very high sinuosities.
flows is deposited on the overbank. However, the levees are too In a more distal setting, on a low slope gradient, we hypothesize
small to confine multiple element cycles so avulsion between that stage 1 erosion will be unlikely. Because the time-averaged
elements is likely and organized stacking of stage 4 cannot develop. flow caliber contains so much mud, both stages 2 and 3 can be short
If mud volume is insufficient to allow the development of effective lived or even absent and channel elements may aggrade rapidly
cohesive banks, confinement is weak, the rate of overbank aggra- along with muddy levees. Stage 4 organized stacking of high
dation is very low, channel elements are thin, and stage 3 aggra- sinuosity channel elements, possibly including lateral accretion,
dation is slight to absent. Sand-rich sediments overfill most dominates the system almost from the start. Examples of mud-rich
740 T. McHargue et al. / Marine and Petroleum Geology 28 (2011) 728e743

Fig. 10. Example quantitative products of the EB model in Fig. 8. A: 3D distribution of facies associations within channel elements. Axis ¼ orange, off-axis ¼ yellow, margin ¼ green,
abandonment and overbank deposits are transparent. Facies associations within any channel element can be asymmetrical in distribution at channel bends. The erosional surface of
the valley walls is brown. B: Map of total sediment isopach superimposed on the valley model. Sediment thickness shown in red (thickest), yellow, green, blue, purple (thinnest).
C: 3D volume of reservoir porosity based on statistical distributions for each facies association. Overbank deposits are transparent. Porosity within channel elements is indicated by
red (highest porosity), yellow, light blue, dark blue (lowest porosity). The erosional surface of the valley walls is brown. D: Map of total reservoir pore volume superimposed on
valley model. The total pore volume map represents the vertical summation of the thickness of each porosity value shown in C. Total pore volume for the model is indicated by red
(highest pore volume), yellow, green, blue (lowest pore volume). Vertical exaggeration ¼ 5.

systems that display moderately to poorly developed architectures sufficient clay is available in the late flows of the waning cycle, bank
of stages 2 and 3 followed by prominent stage 4 organized stacking cohesion may develop, permitting the construction of disorganized
include the Amazon Fan (Pirmez et al., 2000), the Danube Fan stacking of filled channels (stage 3).
(Popescu et al., 2001), and the Indus Fan (Schwenk et al., 2005). This In a more distal low gradient setting, we hypothesize that in
architecture will persist distally until flow filtering removes most of systems with a time-averaged flow caliber that is sand-dominated,
the mud from the upper part of the flow so that overbank sedi- stage 1 erosion may provide the only available outer confinement.
ments are sufficiently sandy that outer levees are no longer cohe- As long as erosional outer confinement relief is effective, stage 2,
sive. At this point, overbank deposits no longer effectively confine laterally offset, amalgamated channel elements with low rates of
flows and channel positions and morphology are unstable. A aggradation and disorganized stacking fill the erosional outer
weakly confined (stage 2) channel system develops consisting of confinement. Insufficient mud is available to allow formation of
rapidly avulsing, laterally offset channel elements. This zone of outer levees with appreciable relief so outer levees either are too
unstable, weakly confined channels will give way to a distributary small to effectively confine channel elements or levee confinement
system down flow and development of tabular sand bodies. This is short lived. Once the outer confinement is filled, avulsion allows
weakly confined to unconfined architecture may persist until the channel elements to spread beyond the original boundaries of the
system is abandoned but if sufficient mud is introduced with time erosional valley and a weakly confined channel system with rapidly
during the waning phase of the energy cycle, a channel-levee avulsing, laterally offset channel elements develops. Further down
system may develop on top of the weakly confined to unconfined flow, unconfined tabular sand bodies are deposited. An example of
system containing architectures of stages 3 and 4. a sand-rich system with architectures of stages 1 and 2 in a prox-
imal setting and stage 2 in a distal setting is located on the eastern
10.4. Sand-dominated systems margin of Corsica (Deptuck et al., 2008).

We hypothesize that on a high gradient, systems with a time- 11. Discussion

averaged flow caliber that is sand-dominated may erode a high
relief valley during stage 1 providing high relief outer confinement. We hypothesize that channel stacking patterns within
During stage 2 amalgamation, channel elements aggrade slowly a complex set-scale cycle tend to progress through a succession of
because sparse volumes of mud in the flows limit the rate of architectural stages. These architectural stages are consistent with
overbank aggradation. Element-scale erosion provides the only a suite of rules (observations, measurements, and hypotheses) for
effective inner confinement for the sandy flows because sandy erosional slope channel systems on steep to moderate gradients
channel banks are non-cohesive and unstable. As a consequence, with mixed sand-mud calibers. So, the architectural stages prob-
stage 2 channel amalgamation, perhaps including braided channel ably are best suited for constructing models of slope channel
architectures, may dominate the entire system. Alternatively, if systems. Whereas some complex sets will display all of the four
T. McHargue et al. / Marine and Petroleum Geology 28 (2011) 728e743 741

stages, many complex sets will not. For example, some complex sets a single complex set. The term system is a general term used to
may be abandoned prior to development of stage 4 and the younger refer to all of the genetically related channel components that
stages of some complex sets may be removed by the erosion from are present in a single area regardless of hierarchy.
a younger complex set-scale cycle. Or, multiple complex sets with 3. Facies associations: Within a channel element, four facies
differing sediment calibers, different slope settings, or different associations are recognized: axis, off-axis, margin, and aban-
aggradation rates may follow the same succession of stages but donment. In a relative sense, axis, off-axis, and margin differ
with changing proportions. We expect that stages 1e2 will domi- from each other by the degree of amalgamation of beds and the
nate sand-rich complex sets whereas mud-rich levee-confined relative abundance of sand, both of which are most common in
channel complex sets will be dominated by stages 2e4, or even the axis. The abandonment facies association overlies the other
3e4. Lateral accretion is not included as part of the four architec- three facies associations in some channel elements and is
tural stages but we suspect that one favored setting for lateral characterized by an upward increase in mudstone interbeds.
accretion is late in the waning phase of a mud-rich complex set 4. Channel organization: The thickness of the abandonment facies
during stage 4 e organized stacking with high rates of aggradation association is a basis for estimating the thickness of unfilled
of under-filled channel elements. Admittedly, there are channel channel element relief at the time of channel abandonment.
complex sets with characteristics that appear to be inconsistent We hypothesize that low abandonment relief will have little
with the rules described here but we feel that these architectural influence on the location of the subsequent channel element
stages serve as a useful standard for comparison. and will result in a disorganized channel stacking pattern.
The architectural stages and the rules from which they are Conversely, high abandonment relief can strongly influence the
derived are of limited value by themselves for making quantitative location of the subsequent channel element and will result in
predictions or quantitative characterizations of sparsely sampled an organized channel stacking pattern in which the path of the
channel systems. The quantitative predictive power of rules is best younger channel element approximates the path of the former
exploited when rules are applied systematically in a forward event- element.
based modeling package (McHargue et al., in press; Pyrcz et al., in 5. Waxingewaning cyclicity: We find it useful to interpret chan-
press) to construct artificial 3D channel systems with realistic nelized turbidite deposits to be the product of multiple cycles
architectures (Figs. 8e10). Constructed models are dependent on of waxing flow energy followed by waning flow energy at
the rules but are objective, reproducible and quantifiable and can be multiple scales. Each cycle is interpreted to result from
conditioned to available data. Interaction and feedback of simple systematic changes in the volume and caliber of turbidity flows
rules can produce complicated architectures, such as the four stages, through time triggering first a fall of the equilibrium profile,
as well as surprises that may require the improvement of existing which drives erosion and sediment bypass of the slope, fol-
rules or the development of new rules. Multiple realizations and lowed by a rise of the equilibrium profile, which allows depo-
multiple alternative models can be constructed to quantitatively sition on the slope of increasingly mud-rich sediments through
examine the probability of specific parameters of interest such as time.
net volume, net-to-gross, connectivity, and tortuosity. 6. Cycle hierarchy: In most turbidite successions, at least three
Examples of quantification are illustrated in Fig. 10. Examples scales of waxingewaning cyclicity can be interpreted: element,
include the 3D distribution of facies associations (Fig. 10A), a map of complex set, and sequence. The element scale of cyclicity is
total sediment thickness within the slope channel system (Fig. 10B), responsible for the erosion and aggradation of a single channel
the 3D distribution and quality of reservoir porosity (Fig. 10C), and element. Likewise, the complex set scale of cyclicity results in
a map of total reservoir pore volume (Fig. 10D). Furthermore, by the accumulation of a complex set, and the sequence scale of
running many models constructed with input values that span the cyclicity results in the accumulation of a sequence.
entire reasonable range for each variable, a suite of possible models 7. Architectural stages: The stacking pattern of channel elements
that are compatible with existing constraining data can be within a complex set-scale cycle tends to be sequential: (1)
produced and statistically analyzed (Pyrcz et al., in press). The same erosion and sediment bypass; (2) amalgamation of channel
models can be used to define probabilities for other specific attri- elements associated with a low rate of aggradation; (3)
butes, such as pore volume, connectivity, and tortuosity. a disorganized stacking pattern of channel elements associated
with a moderate rate of aggradation; and (4) an organized
12. Conclusions stacking pattern of channel elements associated with a high
rate of aggradation.
1. Rules: The study of many slope channel systems has led to the 8. Variability of architectural stages: Depending on variations in
development of rules in the form of observations, measure- slope gradient, aggradation rate, and sediment caliber, the
ments, and hypotheses. The rules were developed with the relative expression of the four stages will vary. For example,
objective of constructing forward models of petroleum reser- stages 1 and 2 may be absent or minor in mud-rich complex
voirs in erosional slope channel systems on steep to moderate sets but prominent in sand-rich complex sets. Conversely, stage
gradients with mixed sand-mud calibers. However, we antici- 4 may be prominent in mud-rich complex sets but absent in
pate that the rules are applicable to a broader range of slope sand-rich complex sets. We hypothesize that organized stack-
channel systems. ing in particularly mud-rich complex sets may be one situation
2. Architectural hierarchy: The consistent application of an archi- that favors the development of channel lateral accretion. We
tectural hierarchy is critical to organizing observations and recognize that there are channel systems with characteristics
measurements from diverse channel systems. In channelized that appear to be inconsistent with the sequence of architec-
systems, the fundamental architectural unit is the channel tural stages proposed here. Nevertheless, we expect that this
element, which consists of a channel-form surface and the model serves as a useful standard for comparison of diverse
sediments that fill it. Separate elements are distinguished from channel systems.
each other by an abrupt lateral offset of depositional facies. 9. Event-based forward modeling: Interaction and feedback of
Multiple similar elements that stack in a consistent pattern can simple rules within the event-based forward modeling labo-
be grouped into a single complex, and, if multiple genetically ratory produces realistic architectures, such as the four stages
related complexes are present, they can be grouped into described above. Multiple realizations and multiple alternative
742 T. McHargue et al. / Marine and Petroleum Geology 28 (2011) 728e743

models can be constructed to quantitatively examine the succession, Laingsburg depocentre, South Africa. Marine and Petroleum
Geology 28, 658e674.
probability of specific parameters of interest.
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Acknowledgements Petroleum Geologists and Special Publication 68-SEPM, pp. 195e214.
Hubbard, S.M., Fildani, A., Romans, B.W., Covault, J.A., McHargue, T.R., 2010. High-
The authors are grateful to Chevron Energy Technology relief clinoform development: insights from outcrop, Magallanes Basin, Chile.
Journal of Sedimentary Research 80, 357e375.
Company for supporting the research and for providing permission Hubscher, C., Spiesz, V., Breitzke, M., Weber, M.E., 1997. The youngest channel levee
to publish. Helpful reviews with suggestions for substantive system of the Bengal Fan: results from digital sediment echosounder data.
improvements were provided by Drs. David Hodgson, Bill Morris, Marine Geology 21, 125e145.
Kane, I.A., Hodgson, D.M., 2011. Sedimentological criteria to differentiate submarine
and Steve Hubbard, who are greatly appreciated. channel levee subenvironments: exhumed examples from the Rosario Fm.
(Upper Cretaceous) of Baja California, Mexico, and the Fort Brown Fm.
(Permian), Karoo Basin, S. Africa. Marine and Petroleum Geology 28, 807e823.
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